Number of UK degree students receiving firsts soars

Graduates celebrate at Warwick University. From 2017-18, tuition fees will rise to £9,250 a year. Photograph: Russell Boyce/Reuters

One-third of UK universities and colleges are awarding firsts to at least 25% of their students, four times as many as five years ago, figures show.

In 2015-16, 50 institutions gave at least one-quarter of degrees the top grade, while 10 awarded more than one-third a first. This compares with 12 and two respectively in 2010-11, before tuition fees were raised to a maximum of £9,000 a year starting from the 2012-13 academic year.

In some cases, the proportion of firsts given out has more than doubled in five years, Press Association analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data found. Almost all universities and colleges are awarding a higher proportion of top grades than they were in 2010-11.

The findings are likely to reopen the long-running debate about grade inflation and prompt questions as to whether the degree classification system should be overhauled.

On average, there has been an eight-percentage-point rise in the number of firsts in the past five years, with only seven institutions seeing their proportion fall. Five universities and colleges have seen the proportion increase by at least 20 percentage points, while 40 have experienced a 10-point rise.

The figures, for the academic years 2010-11 and 2015-16, are based on 148 universities and colleges for which there is comparable data. Official statistics show 24% of students graduated with a first last year.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: “Some rise is not unreasonable, given that schools have got better and some universities have increased their entry tariffs, so they’re getting better quality students.”

But he suggested that the impact of university league tables could be fuelling grade inflation.

Many institutions employed staff to compare their results and data with others, Hillman said, and if a university found itself slipping down the rankings – such as on the proportion of firsts or 2:1s awarded – there was an incentive to improve.

He also highlighted problems with the external examination system used by many universities, which sees academics from other institutions asked to assess students’ work against a university’s requirements.

“There are people who think the system isn’t as robust as it might be,” Hillman said. “It can all be a bit bit cosy – you ask someone you know to be an external examiner.”

At the same time, it was often the university itself that had the ultimate power to decide a student’s grade, he said, adding: “A comparison would be if schools could decide how many A grades to give in A-levels, it’s a big incentive for grade inflation.”

Hillman suggested that students might be working harder. “As you wander round universities, the student union bars are empty and the libraries and working environments are full,” he said.

“They’re not putting in more hours, but they are more productive in the hours they are doing.”

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said: “Every one of our universities is unique, with a different subject mix, student body, faculties and departments and, of course, different course curricula and content, which makes comparison difficult.

“The sector has changed significantly since 2010, with universities putting more emphasis on the quality of teaching and investing in learning support, alongside the fact that with higher fees, students may be working harder to achieve higher grades.”